Something else that needs to be pointed out about these interactions between white and non-white people who don't know each other well is the more general phenomenon at work here--the fact that non-white people often assess the white "Other" in terms of racial membership. They see them, that is, AS white people, and they often consider that fact about them significant.
And yet, if white people ever discover or realize that they're being regarded in the same general way that they usually regard non-white people--in terms that emphasize race (though not necessarily in terms of stereotypes)--they're usually shocked, and even angry.
Again, most whites see most non-whites in group terms, no matter how colorblind they may claim to be. The strange thing is that on the other hand, white people usually think of themselves and other whites as individuals. And on top of that, they also tend to just assume that non-white people see themselves that way too.
Since non-white people have to study white people (as they try to get by or get ahead in a largely white, largely white-controlled world, as well as for their own safety), they often know more than whites themselves do about what being trained into whiteness commonly does to a person. It's also true that one resemblance between many non-whites and whites is that it is fairly common to think of their Other—of white people that is—in terms of stereotypes. And yet, despite all this non-white assessment of white individuals in terms of their race, if it becomes clear to a white person that he or she is being perceived AS a white person, the reaction is often shock or amazement.
While both whites and non-whites do often harbor stereotypes about each other, the non-white knowledge about and understanding of white people is much greater than the opposite. African Americans in particular have a long and detailed body of shared knowledge regarding whiteness. I’ve had trouble finding written or otherwise recorded observations on white people and white ways from other, non-black perspectives, but they must be out there. (Does anyone here know of any? If you're non-white and non-African American, is there recorded or non-recorded common knowledge or stereotypes about white folks among your group?)
In the essay excerpt below, bell hooks explains in more detail some common black observations about white people, as well as the ironic racism embedded within this common form of white surprise, which expresses white people's common amazement that non-white people would ever think that their whiteness makes any difference at all to who they are as “individuals”:
Although there has never been an official body of black people in the United States who have gathered as anthropologists and/or ethnographers to study whiteness, black folks have, from slavery on, shared in conversations with one another “special” knowledge of whiteness gleaned from close scrutiny of white people. Deemed special because it was not a way of knowing that has been recorded fully in written material, its purpose was to help black folks cope and survive in a white supremacist society. . . .
Sharing the fascination with difference that white people have collectively expressed openly (and at times vulgarly) as they have traveled around the world in pursuit of the Other and Otherness, black people, especially those living during the historical period of racial apartheid and legal segregation, have similarly maintained steadfast and ongoing curiosity about the “ghosts,” the “barbarians,” these strange apparitions they were forced to serve. . . .
My thinking about representations of whiteness in the black imagination has been stimulated by classroom discussions about the way in which the absence of recognition is a strategy that facilitates making a group the Other. In those classrooms there have been heated debates among students when white students respond with disbelief, shock, and rage, as they listen to black students talk about whiteness, when they are compelled to hear observations, stereotypes, etc. that are offered as “data” gleaned from close scrutiny and study.
Usually, white students respond with naive amazement that black people critically assess white people from a standpoint where “whiteness” is the privileged signifier. Their amazement that black people watch white people with a critical “ethnographic” gaze, is itself an expression of racism.
Often their rage erupts because they believe that all ways of looking that highlight difference subvert the liberal belief in a universal subjectivity (we are all just people) that they think will make racism disappear. They have a deep emotional investment in the myth of “sameness,” even as their actions reflect the primacy of whiteness as a sign informing who they are and how they think. Many of them are shocked that black people think critically about whiteness because racist thinking perpetuates the fantasy that the Other who is subjugated, who is subhuman, lacks the ability to comprehend, to understand, to see the working of the powerful.
Even though the majority of these students politically consider themselves liberals and anti-racists, they too unwittingly invest in the sense of whiteness as mystery.
--bell hooks, “Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination”